Why our brains don’t want us to be happy
Your brain likes to solve problems. It was built for solving problems. It loves problems so much that sometimes, it creates problems for itself to solve. So for those of us that actually want to create a life worth living, this lovely survival mechanism of Mother Nature might actually be getting in our own way. The brain is an amazing tool and we want to utilize it. You are using your brain to read these words and understand them. But knowing something in your head and integrating and feeling something in your heart are two different things. The brain’s number one priority is to keep you alive. The limbic system, which is the lower part of our brains LOVES survival mode. It is built to assess situations as “good or bad, safe or unsafe.” So when we are safe in the present moment, the brain doesn’t know what to do with itself. Especially, for those of us that have experienced some kind of trauma, the nervous system is organized in such a way that helps us survive. Perhaps we were in a life or death situation, or the nervous system processed it that way. Our brains need to make sense of that and they begin to make meaning and create stories about that. For some of us, our nervous systems may be highly sensitive or you may have had trauma, and as a protective mechanism, the brain starts to begin to only process and notice negative experiences. It begins to try to expect bad things to happen so that it can prepare itself and take out the element of surprise. The brain tries to look for the next shitty thing that is coming down the pipe so that it can prepare to fight or flee. What happens when we feel relaxed, when we feel joyful, is it leaves us open for the punch- the punch of disappointment, or heartbreak, or loss. So joy and happiness are actually quite scary for many of us. Holding a positive feeling is actually triggering and scary for some folks, especially those with a trauma-organized nervous system.
Having compassion and understanding for that part of you that is trying to protect you by only registering the negative things is the first step towards healing and then beginning to notice neutral experiences, maybe even something silly like peeing. It isn’t particularly joyful, but it isn’t negative (unless of course you have a bladder infection, in which case, it is very negative so don’t use peeing to practice neutrality if you have a bladder infection). I digress. But if you don’t have a bladder infection and peeing is a neutral experience for you, just take a minute to notice it. Let your brain process the neutrality to build your tolerance for not having to make a problem where there isn’t one and just notice that in that moment, there is no problem. Perhaps then you can build up to noticing good things, joyful things and begin to tolerate them. Tolerating joy? There’s a concept.
Another common phenomena that people with trauma-organized nervous systems struggle with is they begin to think that they are a shit-magnet. Terrible things continue to happen to them and in many cases, many of the things that happen to them seem to be completely out of their control. They get robbed and then the next day, their car breaks down. They lose their job and then get dumped by their boyfriend. Many of the things that happen to them are NOT their fault, but they seem to have a rain cloud following them around everywhere they go. There are two main theories that help to explain this. I want to make it very clear that I am not in the business of blaming victims for their trauma. Abuse is never okay, violence is very rarely okay; the blame and fault of victimization lies with the perpetrator (and it warrants exploring why they are engaging in such behaviors and can they be helped). Nevertheless, the exploration of these theories can help us understand what is happening. The first theory has to do with dissociation. When something traumatic happens, our bodies tend to go into flight or fight and then numb out. There is a part of our brain that checks out and disappears. So for some folks, they are dissociated for much of the day and they are not mindful of things that need to be attended to. Perhaps the check engine light had been on for months, or they do not pay attention to their bank account, or they ignore poorly set boundaries and cues from people in their lives that let them know they are not trustworthy or safe and they choose to remain in relationships with them anyway. Choice is a loaded word here mind you because we do not CHOOSE to dissociate; our bodies just do that without us having any choice in the matter. There are some studies to suggest that the size of your hippocampus is a factor as to your resiliency and mindfulness and processing positive experience can actually help to strengthen the hippocampus. So the theory for trauma victims being more likely to be re-victimized is that their brains dissociate and they don’t pay attention to the pain or to the warning signs that could prevent further trauma from happening to them. Again, I do not want to blame victims here, but it is a phenomena that is worth exploring and one that prevents many people from being able to tolerate joy. They dissociate, don’t pay attention to things that perhaps could be avoided or prevented, and then they don’t see the shitty thing until it is too late. This reinforces the story that they are a shit magnet and now they have even more evidence to support this theory and even more evidence that confirms that their brain really does need to be on the lookout for the next shitty thing.
The other theory is about the compulsion to repeat the trauma. This is Bessel VanderKolk’s work and he basically states that people may subconsciously recreate traumatic attachments in order to try to create new outcomes. When children experience trauma and they are allowed to come to play therapy, they often reenact the trauma over and over with dolls or toys until Superman comes and rescues them or a lion comes and eats the bad guy. At that point, the child has process through at least part of the traumatic experience. We do the same thing as adults, we just do it with our bodies. We reenact traumatic or toxic attachments in order to try to process it and create different outcomes. Our bodies want us to heal; our brains are trying to protect us, but we have to learn to access the part of our brains and bodies that can simultaneously pay attention to warning signs AND process our traumas in safe relationships like therapy.
So then what happens is that people begin to develop negative beliefs like “I am bad,” or “I’m not good enough to belong as I am,” or “I’m a piece of shit.” And even these negative beliefs are actually trying to protect us. They give us this false sense of autonomy and control that if it is truly about us, then we can do something to change it. But we keep trying to change it, maybe if I am smarter, or quieter, or cuter or skinnier, then people will love and accept me, but that doesn’t happen because we are either in abusive and toxic relationships and the other people do not have the capacity to love us the way that we need. Or we are being loved and accepted, but we cannot tolerate attachments so our brains create problems and create divisions so that we can be right. We get to be right about being a piece of shit and our brains filter everything as evidence to support that hypothesis.
Even if you do not have a lot of trauma in your life, our society is like death by a thousand paper cuts. We are constantly bombarded with images and messages that we should be fearful and that we are not enough. AND here’s the real shitty part: MOST of the things that happen to us are not our fault AND we are the only ones that can heal from them. Choosing to face past wounds in healthy ways, choosing to pay attention to the warning signs of toxic relationships- these are the things that ARE IN OUR POWER. What other people do or say is not in our control. We must learn to stop giving a fuck about other people’s toxic shit so much and start caring deeply about what is actually healthy for us and what is going to create a life worth living. For some of us, that actually means building a tolerance for joy, breathing through the discomfort of feeling happy. It is vulnerable to feel joyful; it is scary, but it is far scarier to live in the mentality that “life happens to us.” Step into your power; heal from past wounds. Start building your brain and your body’s strength and give yourself permission to experience joy.